Pilot profile: Movie stunt pilot Marc Wolff
PUBLISHED: 16:41 24 September 2020 | UPDATED: 16:41 24 September 2020
Marc Wolfe 2020
Whether it’s Superman, Bond or Mission: Impossible, Marc Wolff is the unseen hero flying and filming those unforgettable action sequences
I have waited more than forty years to meet this movie star. He has featured in more than two hundred films including the blockbuster franchises of James Bond and Mission: Impossible. Yet probably no moviegoer would recognise him−he is the highly respected film pilot and director Marc Wolff.
He first caught my attention when I watched the premiere of the 1977 Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, with a brilliant sequence featuring a white Lotus Esprit (I was working at Lotus at the time) being chased around Sardinia by a black JetRanger.
The credits listed ‘Helicopter Pilot – Marc Wolff’. From then on, whenever I watched a film with aerial sequences, I would check the credits to see if he was mentioned. Chances were, the more exciting the movie, the more likely that Marc was involved.
His most recent oh-my-goodness movie was Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), which showcases Marc’s talents once again−superstar Tom Cruise flew many of the sequences himself, under Marc’s guidance.
Marc also flew the camera ship sideways between the two Blackfriars bridges at roadway height to capture Cruise running along the roof of Blackfriars Station−check out the flightpath next time you are in the vicinity and marvel. (‘Fallout’ is now available on Netflix−Ed.)
With these movies in mind, I imagined he might be a larger than life character. I should have realised, actually that real pros do not need to shoot their mouths off, they simply let their work do the talking.
My first impression was of a quiet, almost shy elderly and neat gentleman: once we started talking, his quick thinking, instant-recall memory and twinkling sense of humour shone through.
Born in 1947 in Chicago, he grew up in New Jersey. After studying industrial engineering for a year at university, he got bored and left, was conscripted into the US Army and served a five year tour of duty. He attended infantry officer training school, where he learned a lesson of life.
During his training, his commanding officer threatened to fail him unless he changed his ‘lighthearted’ attitude. Marc says “Infantry school is tough, they aim to break you and rebuild you in their image. I tried to cope through humour, but I had to change and act more mature, or fail.”
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and selected to attend the army’s intelligence school. Soon after, in 1968, he requested a change to go to flight school after experiencing being a foot soldier in the mosquito, leech and snake infested swamps of Georgia during infantry training exercises.
His request was granted and he learned to fly helicopters. After graduation later that year he was posted to Vietnam where he spent a year conducting combat flight operations in South Vietnam as a pilot and helicopter platoon leader responsible for eight Hueys.
While in Vietnam he was promoted at twenty-one, becoming the youngest Captain in the US Army. After Vietnam he was posted to West Germany and given command of a mechanised infantry company comprising of two hundred soldiers and armoured vehicles.
“I was out of my depth, too young and too inexperienced−I didn’t enjoy it,” he tells me. After a year in command he was transferred to a staff rôle in intelligence for the last part of his service. He received an honourable discharge in November 1971, having been awarded a Bronze Star for service.
On arriving back in the United States, another event changed the course of his life. “We were returning from Vietnam; some of my fellow Americans were pelting our bus from the airport with eggs. I thought, if that’s how we get treated I’m leaving this country,” he says.
He stayed long enough to benefit from the training courses provided to ex-military personnel, which in his case was a course of advanced flight training at Flight Safety, Inc in Vero Beach, Florida.
Here he gained his commercial fixed-wing pilot, instrument, multi-engine and flight instructor licences to go along with his commercial helicopter pilot’s licence. That same year, 1972, he moved to the UK where he did further flight training at the Oxford Air Training School, getting his ATPL(H) and some years later, just for good measure, a commercial balloon pilot’s licence.
He got a job with a specialist aerial-work helicopter company: “It was a great company to work for, as the flying was so varied; we got jobs in external load lifting, mapping, long line mineral surveys, infra-red power-line inspection, agricultural spraying and executive charter.
“I also flew the first London Police helicopter and did some aerial filming. I was doing work shooting TV ads including an award-winning Renault 4 ad with director Hugh Hudson [of Chariots of Fire fame], so I started meeting cameramen and directors who have become such a large part of my working life to this day.”
He resigned from his position as chief pilot and company director in 1976 to start his own business providing a comprehensive aviation service to the film and TV industry worldwide, which grew into the present day Flying Pictures (Group) Ltd.
Making Superman fly
Getting off the ground in the early years was tough, he says. “I door-knocked in Soho for months, trying to get to see directors and producers. Then out of the blue I got a call from a cameraman I’d met doing TV ads and that led me to working on The Spy Who Loved Me and later the first Superman movie.”
I reckon this blockbuster really made his name. Mark O’Connell, writing in The Guardian in December 2018, said ‘Forty years later, it is impossible to overestimate the cinematic superpowers of Richard Donner’s masterwork [Superman]. The end result of many attempts to bring DC Comics’ icon onto the big screen, the 1978 classic is the template that all superheroes overlook at their peril.’
Marc’s rôle in the film was to make the iconic strapline−‘You’ll believe a man can fly’−a reality. Early attempts to get Superman flying on-screen involved a Learjet camera plane filming the landscape passing in real time, but the results were poor. Marc was brought in and came up with the novel idea of fitting a helicopter with a special gyro-stabilised slow-motion camera.
“I could terrain-follow much more accurately at 100kt than the Learjet could at 250kt−when the film was played back at normal speed it looked like Superman was flying at 800 knots”. This for me is an indicator of Marc’s passion and strength−to understand the director’s vision and deliver it in spades, safely, in budget and on time, often engineering novel solutions.
Life on the edge
Wolff has a wide background of flying experience in mountain, glacier, Arctic, jungle, desert and over-water operations in 62 countries around the world. He has passed Swiss, French, Italian, New Zealand and Canadian mountain flying tests.
He has been a UK CAA Type-Rating, Flight Test Examiner for helicopters, and a FAA Certified Flight Instructor in fixed-wing aircraft. To date he has worked on more than 230 feature films, more than 160 commercials and numerous television programs and documentaries.
In 1993, The Guardian awarded Wolff their ‘Alternative Oscar’ for Best Stunt for the film Cliffhanger, where he organised, coordinated and filmed the transfer of stuntman Simon Crane from the back of a DC-9 airliner to the door of a Lockheed Jetstar business jet at 15,000ft over the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
Wolff has directed several short films, commercials, and aerial units; he started directing filming units on major feature films in 2005. He now devotes the majority of his time to directing action sequences and developing his own short films, while also continuing to fly both aerial camera and stunt work on a regular basis.
And, although he is mostly known for his aviation work, he also does cinema work with few or no links to flying. He has written a sensitive script about a vulnerable child who is hunted down by a paedophile, and has numerous stories he wants to get told. He once volunteered his time to help direct and shoot an emotionally shocking film called Unwatchable that highlighted the physical violence and rape that takes place in Eastern Congo.
His two children, both in their late twenties, have followed him into similar careers – his daughter Lily is an award-winning theatre director currently working in Houston, Texas and his son Henry, who trained as a chemical engineer in Sheffield, is now working in special effects (Marc says “he knows how to make really spectacular explosions”).
In 2012 the prestigious British Kinematograph Sound and Television Society (now the International Moving Image Society) presented Wolff with the Matthew Allwork Memorial Award for ‘Services to the International Film Industry’.
Shoot to Thrill, a one-hour documentary about his working life from Vietnam to the production of James Bond films, was distributed by the Discovery Channel and is also available on his website (www.marcwolff.net).
My next notable encounter with Marc was in the Bond sequel For Your Eyes Only. Derek Meddings, legendary Oscar-winning special effects director, worked with Marc on this movie, which was released in 1981. The film contains another jaw-dropping helicopter sequence in the opening minutes where Bond, piloting a JetRanger, scoops up baddie Blofeld in his wheelchair with the skid of the helicopter and drops him down an industrial chimney.
In an interview that year Meddings said: “The Jet Ranger was flown by Marc Wolff. He is really superb. There is absolutely nothing he can’t do with a helicopter. Even though the helicopter stuck its nose down a bit, the wheelchair still had to be shot off the skid. Marc lined it up and pushed the button and the air device fired the wheelchair off the skid and straight into the chimney. It took some doing, so it was a good thing that Marc had been trained in Vietnam.
“We had three wheelchairs and three dummies, so that we could get different angles on the scene. We let Marc have three goes at it and he got that chair down into the top of the chimney every time.” Another good example of letting your work do the talking and a definite step up from flour-bombing competitions.
In 2012 he co-ordinated and flew in an AgustaWestland AW139 the spectacular aerial sequence at the London Olympics opening ceremony. During the brilliant, tongue-in-cheek sequence, filmed at low level between Buckingham Palace and the Olympic Park, ‘Her Majesty the Queen’ and ‘James Bond’ were flown through Tower Bridge under the Olympic rings and then parachuted from the helicopter at very low altitude into the stadium.
In describing the preparation, he said “We did over one hundred jump rehearsals before the ceremony, but we had to keep the finishing sequence hush-hush so as not to spoil the surprise”.
A fan of Squirrels
Since he has flown dozens of different types of helicopter, I couldn’t help but ask about his favourite ones. He’s a big fan of the Squirrel family with some 2,500 hours each on the AS350 Squirrel and AS355 Twin Squirrel (out of a total helicopter time of some 14,500 hours). “They make great camera platforms, so I and my long-standing engineer, Steve North, have developed a lot of engineering knowhow on installing cameras inside and outside and getting the work certified in a relatively short timeframe−time costs serious money in the film industry.”
One of the things he mentioned during our lunch meeting was the movie Spygame shot on location in Morocco. “The producer wanted to source a military helicopter from the Moroccan Air Force” he said.
“I convinced him the type they had was wrong for the part, as it was supposed to be Chinese and the Moroccan Air Force operated French helicopters. I managed to hire a Polish Mi-2 which looked the part and cost less than the one from the Moroccans. It arrived on a truck two days later with a bunch of engineers from the factory. That was some helicopter – it will climb, and it will turn, but not both at the same time!”
In early 2018, I was watching the trailer for Mission: Impossible – Fallout and saw that it featured an Airbus EC145, similar to those being operated in the UK by several air ambulance charities including East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA).
I saw my opportunity to make contact with Marc and invite him to visit EAAA’s Cambridge base−that turned out to be my first meeting with him. He spent a couple of hours talking to the duty pilots that day about the 145, its systems and characteristics. When I met him later, I asked about his experience with the 145.
He said: “For Fallout, I was the aerial co-ordinator and we were going to shoot a lot of the action sequences in New Zealand. So I was looking for a pilot who had both a New Zealand and an FAA licence, with experience of mountain flying, film flying, formation flying and was type-rated on the 145. I couldn’t find anybody except me with most of those requirements, so I set about getting type-rated on the 145.
“The Airbus people were great−they gave me a two-week conversion course in North America with their chief pilot, Tim McAdams, who ended up coming on location with us to help me advise Cruise during rehearsals on how to safely push the limits with his flying sequences.
“I flew the 145 for more than one hundred hours on the film, getting the bespoke camera rigs certified, doing rehearsals and then flying the chase sequences, but I was really only scratching the surface of the flight control systems and the avionics.
“The 145 has a sophisticated Stability Augmentation System, a really good autopilot and force trim. I wanted to lighten the controls as much as possible so I could really get an instant, yet delicate and precise response when chasing Tom in the winding, narrow Shotover River canyon, but I also needed stability. I tried umpteen combinations of the systems until I got it as good as I could get it for my purpose.”
Fallout, which grossed almost $800m worldwide, benefitted from Marc’s talent both in filming and in piloting. “We wanted to make sure the audience knew that Cruise was really flying his helicopter on his own, so we had bespoke camera mounts built that rigged cameras outside and inside, shooting sideways, forwards and backwards.
“Two of the thirteen helicopters we used during filming were US registered; we put these two on experimental certificates of airworthiness which enabled us to get our camera rigs cleared by the aviation authority in a very short time frame. Tom did a great job and flew every one of those sequences by himself.” Some of the manoeuvres, such as the spiral dive, are definitely not ones to try at home, except maybe on a simulator.
During our meeting, he went on to say: “Flying fixed, or rotary-wing aircraft, either as camera ships or at the heart of the action, is just a part of the end game of telling a great story in pictures−so I’m very happy and keen to do more directing, thus controlling the whole storytelling process.
When directing in the air, I’ll often have a type-rated pilot alongside me to captain the flight, leaving me to focus on flying and framing the action sequences such as tight formation flying−not something most Learjet pilots are used to!”
Marc clearly never stops learning−he has recently completed a number of courses at The London Film School, and the National Film and Television School. And when he is not working around the world, he spends his time living in the UK with pretty challenging pastimes such as sailing, skiing, and climbing (as well as, obviously, watching films). He tells me he goes to the gym and does Bikram yoga two or three times a week, then with a twinkle tells me about a sailing exploit.
“Some time ago, I was helping a guy who’d built his own 58ft yacht to sail it to the Med from Lowestoft. We were off the west coast of Brittany and it was a foul night. The engine mounts failed which then led to the owner going below to try to get the engine going again.
“Sadly he slipped and injured his back, so was out of action for the time being. The engine mount failure had also led to the prop shaft shearing and sliding back and jamming the rudder, so there I was in the fog, in strong tidal waters, with no engine and no rudder. Having to get this yacht to port, I was adjusting the sails to change course. I got it to St Peter Port in the Channel Islands, the owner recovered and later wrote a book about our exploits”.
Maybe that is why Marc still loves hot-air ballooning, where you have to rely on reading and finding the wind to change direction. He is a member of the Aeroclub Mongolfiere di Mondovì in Italy where he still keeps a balloon.
“I don’t get to fly it much and the envelope is pretty old so it’s getting a bit porous. I’ll have to decide soon whether I’m going to replace the envelope or scrap it. But the freedom and the views from the basket are so magical.” In 1991 Marc flew the very first hot air balloon ever seen in Red Square in Moscow for the Disney theme-park film The Timekeeper.
Aged 71, he is still flying safely, having fun, and his passion for telling stories with moving pictures continues. He tells me he will keep doing what he loves so long as he can pass a medical.
“In this business you have to be prepared to go on location for weeks or months at a time, at very short notice. It can, and does play havoc with your private life. The upside is that this job takes me to beautiful places around the world, and I get to see them from angles and locations nobody else can−other than moviegoers of course.”
A personal safety officer
Marc has developed a well-oiled system in order to push the boundary in a safe manner. “This job is for showmen, not show-offs, who simply won’t survive,” he says. “I’ve always flown to the limits of my aircraft and myself and I rely absolutely on my engineer, Steve North, who’s been with me since 1979. He is also my safety officer on location. If he says stop, we stop−no question”.
That happened for instance when Marc was filming Proof of Life in Poland. He was working with Taylor Hackford, the Oscar-winning director of An Officer and a Gentlemen.
“We had Russell Crowe hanging from a step by his hands with no safety wire. Taylor, who is a larger than life character, said over the radio, ‘higher, higher’, and Steve said, ‘stop, that’s high enough’.
“Taylor yelled ‘cut’ and marched over to Steve, saying ‘Steve, I’m directing this film and I’ll decide when to stop’. Steve replied, ‘you may be the director Sir, but I decide when we’re high enough without a safety cable’, and that was it.”
And it is through Steve’s judgement and skill that Marc believes he is still alive today. One of the Bond producers once asked a production manager, “who is this Steve North and what does he do?” The manager answered “we don’t know, but Marc won’t work without him.”
At the moment, Marc is working on a new movie entitled Kargil Girl, which tells the story of the first woman to fly for the Indian Air Force. Gunjan Saxena flew combat missions in the 1999 Indo-Pakistani war in Kashmir.
“She flew an Aerospatiale Lama, a very basic helicopter, on perilous rescue missions under fire. We’ll be filming it high up in the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia near the Russian border. I’m very excited about this because the Caucasus are the only major mountain range in the world that I have not flown in”.
His quiet demeanour belies his talent and achievements, reminding me very much of another ‘push the limit’ man I met many years ago−Ayrton Senna. To borrow a phrase from another aviation era, Marc really seems to me to have The Right Stuff.